IOWA — In 2014, the Estate of Larry Kinseth prevailed in a trial against boiler manufacturer, Weil-McLain, in Iowa District Court for Wright County. The plaintiff was awarded $4 million in compensatory damages, of which Weil-McLain was assessed 25 percent liability. The plaintiff then successfully argued for the application of punitive damages against Weil-McLain, and the jury awarded $2.5million in that phase of the trial. Weil-McLain appealed, based mostly on the conduct of the plaintiff’s counsel during closing arguments, and was successful on appeal in seeking a new trial. The plaintiff’s petition for review to the Iowa Supreme Court was granted.
In a lengthy opinion, the Iowa Supreme Court addressed numerous issues on appeal. The first important issue involved numerous statements about Weil-McLain’s corporate wealth made by the plaintiff’s counsel during closing argument, which were objected to on the basis of in limine rulings. The district court denied the motion for a mistrial on the basis of those statements, but the appeals court reversed on that point and the Supreme Court agreed. Weil-McLain also challenged the exclusion of a valve manufacturer on the verdict sheet. The Supreme Court upheld the exclusion of that entity based upon the lack of evidence of exposure to the manufacturer’s valves. However, the court did uphold the allocation of fault to bankrupt entities, finding that they were properly included on the verdict sheet after the plaintiff settled with those entities. Finally, the Supreme Court clarified Iowa’s punitive damages standard in asbestos cases. Weil-McLain argued that there must be evidence that its failure to warn was conduct which deviated from its peer manufacturer companies. However, the Supreme Court clarified that “the willfulness and wantonness of its failure to act will be considered in light of its specific knowledge, as well as other contextual evidence.” The Supreme Court then remanded the case to district court for a new trial.